Art Kavanagh

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Does someone with aphantasia dream in colour?

I came across this question last year, not long after I learned that I have aphantasia. I wasn’t sure what the answer is. I reckoned that if I dreamt in monochrome I’d have noticed and remembered the fact and, since I didn’t, the answer must be “yes”. But there was still something unsatisfactory about that answer.

Since I was a teenager I’ve intermittently been frustrated by the fact that I don’t remember my dreams. At best, I can recall fleeting, fragmentary flashes which usually don’t make much sense and which tease me with the sense that there’s something important lying just outside the reach of my memory. The discovery that I have aphantasia (and questions such as the one in the title) got me thinking again about the dreams which affect my waking mood but which I can’t consciously call to mind and examine.

So, at the beginning of this year, I started to keep a dream diary, writing down immediately on waking whatever I could remember of my dreams. The result was disappointing. There were a few mornings when I could remember sustained fragments of story, and even complicated bits of plot, but these were very much the exception. Even the stories tended to be irritatingly repetitive, often involving the sense that I was trapped in a cycle of actions that I was anxious to get out of. Here’s an example:

Dream diary day 11 — 25/01/2019
More editing of Word tables: repetitive and tedious. Can’t remember much about it but I think I felt as if I was actually editing in Word while at the same time being conscious that I was lying in bed, thinking that I’d have to get up soon. Contradictory sense of being at once in the dream and outside it. Perhaps the dream wasn’t interesting enough to hold my full attention.

Soon, I had a succession of nights in which nothing much happened:

Dream diary day 18 — 01/02/2019
Ugh! More repetitive software testing. Boring!
Dream diary day 19 — 02/02/2019
Nothing. I thought I caught some flashes of remembered dream as I was waking up but they got away before I could grasp anything I was able to record in writing.
Dream diary day 20 — 03/02/2019
More repetition. Couldn’t get Joni Mitchell’s “Shades of Scarlett Conquering” out of my mind all night. I’ve probably ruined my enjoyment of that song for good.

After day 21 I stopped keeping the diary and I haven’t gone back to it since.

Yesterday morning as I was waking up, something struck me that I hadn’t thought of before: to ask whether I dream in colour is a bit like getting me to read a passage from a book and then asking me if that was in colour! More precisely, those few parts of my dream which are visual are indeed in colour but most of my dreams are no more visual than any other aspect of my imagination. With some exceptions, my dreams consist more of mood, feeling, apprehensions, concepts and abstractions than of images, and the images, when they do come, tend to be fragmentary and fleeting and definitely subsidiary to the other aspects. That, in the end, is why I was never satisfied with the reasoning that, if I hadn’t noticed that my dreams were in black and white, that must mean they’re in colour. It’s a bit like asking an aphantasic what she sees when she closes her eyes. She doesn’t see anything, of course, because it’s not a visual experience.

So, I think I it’s time I stopped trying to force myself to overcome my “failure” to remember what I’ve dreamt about, or to keep a more interesting dream diary.

My posts on the topic of aphantasia have developed into an accidental series. Here’s a full list, which I’ll update as I add further posts.

Posted by Art, 28-Jul-2019